Stretching may alleviate, stem tension headaches

by Judy Stringer

Instead of reaching for that bottle of ibuprofen the next time your head is throbbing, consider reaching for a yoga mat. 

Dr. Deborah Reed, a neurologist at University Hospitals and director of its headache center, said many “tension-type headaches” – those that often feel like a tight band around your head – may be relieved by gentle stretching. 

That’s because a common cause of tension headaches is stiffness in the face, neck and shoulders. Such stiffness can result from heightened stress or anxiety, when people may be regularly clenching their jaw, for example, or keeping their shoulders raised and inadvertently aggravating the muscles in their head and neck. But, Reed said, these headaches are as likely to stem from bad posture or prolonged periods of hunching over a computer. 

“When we all started Zoom calls during the pandemic, everybody had tension headaches because we were leaning over our computer with rounded shoulders and heads forward,” she said.

A recently published Norwegian study revealed that one in six people has a headache on any given day. Tension headaches are the most common type, it found, followed by migraines. 

Reed said migraines are more likely to involve multiple symptoms, such as light sensitivity and nausea, and have a neurological component. Tension headaches, by comparison, are “biomechanical” in nature, Reed said. 

Those who suffer from recurrent tension are often referred to a physical therapist, according to Reed, who can help determine what joints and muscles might be contributing to the head pain and instruct patients on appropriate exercises to do at home. 

Manual manipulation of muscles and joints around the shoulders and neck by trained osteopaths is another option, said Dr. Cheryl Hammes, a Cleveland-based associate professor with Health & Wellness the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and president of Integrative Wellness in Brecksville. 

“In addition, we teach patients about neck and shoulder stretches that can help to restore proper alignment of the head and neck, if that’s the issue,” she said, “and we talk a lot about posture.”  

Hammes said the key to any treatment path is identifying the source of tension. Computer work, as mentioned earlier, is a big culprit but so are heavy backpacks or messenger bags, conditions like TMJ (problems with a joint in the jaw), trauma from a sports injury or car accident, and even stomach sleeping. 

“I’ve referred headache patients to dentists to get mouth guards and to sleep specialists to be screened for sleep apnea,” she said. 

Both medical professionals advised against sustained use of over-the-counter pain medications like Tylenol and Advil because of potential side effects.

If you have recurrent tension headaches, they said, see your doctor. But for the occasional headache, try head, neck and shoulder stretches or low-impact activities like gentle yoga or water aerobics where the focus is on “posture and core,” Reed said. 

Hammes likes chin tucks as an antidote to common head-too-far-forward computer postures. offers these simple chin tuck steps:

•  Sit upright and look straight ahead with the ears directly over the shoulders.

•  Place a finger on the chin.

•  Without moving the finger, pull the chin and head straight back until a good stretch is felt at the base of the head and top of the neck. There should now be separation between the chin and finger.

•  Hold for 5 seconds if possible.

•  Bring the chin forward to the finger again.

•  Repeat for a total of 10 times, or as tolerated. ∞